Documentary “Helvetica” Traces The History of Typography

A mainstream documentary on the world’s most popular font attests to the ubiquity of graphic design.

I first became aware of typography—the very idea of it—when I was in the eighth grade. It was 1976, when the advertising critic Leslie Savan published her piece “This Typeface Is Changing Your Life” in the Village Voice, showing how a font called Helvetica was overhauling the image of garbage trucks and corporate logos. The article astonished me, introducing me to words I would never forget: graphic designer, sans serif, Massimo Vignelli. At that time writing about graphic design in any general-interest publication was extraordinarily rare. Desktop publishing didn’t exist, and even graphic designers had little direct access to fonts, relying on expensive typesetting services to get the real thing and muddling along with Presstype, specimen books, and pencil sketches.

Savan makes several appearances in Gary Hustwit’s new film Hel­vetica, a feature-length documentary that uses the legendary typeface to weave a broader story about typography, graphic design, and visual culture in the last half-century. Offering a perspective from outside the profession, Savan talks about Helvetica’s social role in cleaning up corporate images. Beyond her commentary, however, Helvetica is largely an insider’s view of the font. (Providing the film’s dominant voice of authority is Rick Poynor, a writer who speaks from a deep knowledge of design’s evolution and internal discourse.)

Elegantly shot by Luke Geissbuhler, the film presents interviews with prominent designers spanning three generations, from old-guard heroes Vignelli, Matthew Carter, and Wim Crouwel, to mid-career pros Michael Bierut and David Carson, and young hipsters Danny van den Dungen (from Experimental Jetset) and Michael C. Place (formerly with the Designers Republic). Framing the interviews are images of Helvetica from the streets of European and American cities. We thus move rhythmically between the designer’s voice from inside the studio to the public life of the typeface on café signs, billboards, subway graphics, and so on. The two perspectives come together humorously toward the end of the film, when the Swiss publisher and graphic designer Lars Müller walks through London and points his finger, with deadpan sobriety, at various examples of Helvetica.

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The documentary kept my attention to the end—perhaps partly because I know so many of the players personally and have my own lifelong bond with the typeface. Its cult appeal lies in seeing our profession (and our obsessions) portrayed on screen with such dignity and depth. I kept wondering as I watched how the film would speak to nondesigners. Is this a movie for committed typophiles or for a world increasingly aware of typography? Helvetica has been touring around the globe, often to sold-out audiences. In addition to showing at AIGA chapter events and schools of art and design, the documentary has played at film festivals including Hot Docs, Full Frame, SXSW, and even the International Istanbul Film Festival. Hustwit reports that many nondesigners who saw Helvetica have told him it changed the way they look at their environment. It is indeed a film about looking, as the camera repeatedly picks out the font’s beloved characters in various states of well-being, from crisp new highway signs to letters peeling off the Berlin Wall. The subject is at once esoteric and universal.

Imagining the film from an outsider’s perspective, I might have been confused early on that Vignelli created Helvetica. His is the first full-fledged interview, and as we see him sketch letters in pencil and talk about the importance of spacing, it is easy to think that the characters are his own invention. (“We think typography is black and white,” he says. “Typography is really white. …It is the space between the blacks that really makes it.”) Later we learn about Helvetica’s birth in 1957 as the brainchild of Eduard Hoffmann, director of the Haas Type Foundry, in Münchenstein, Switzerland. Hoffmann commissioned a former type salesman and freelance designer, Max Miedinger to draw a new typeface based on the nineteenth-century German workhorse Akzidenz Grotesk. Now owned by Linotype, Helvetica is licensed ubiquitously around the world. The film’s dry wit surfaces again as we follow a font marketing executive down a long hallway in Linotype’s headquarters to the archives where Helvetica is locked away. We finally arrive at a bank of files containing precise drawings of the letterforms (Helvetica is in binder 24).

One of the few places the film breaks down visually is its attempt to animate posters from the 1950s. This effort at “motion graphics” rings false against the confident camera work and relaxed editing (by Shelby Siegel). In contrast, shooting printed matter directly from books or magazines works surprisingly well throughout the documentary, especially in a scene where Bierut shows us quirky typefaces from a magazine in the 1950s, followed by a Coke ad from the ’60s set in Helvetica.

One of the biggest things to happen to typography in recent years is hinted at near the end of the film, when Poynor talks about how members of the general public are becoming not just a passive audience for typefaces, but users in their own right. “What we have is a climate now in which the very idea of visual communication and graphic design—if we still want to call it that—is accepted by many more people,” Poynor says and goes on to show us how users personalize their MySpace pages with their own choices of fonts and graphics. “Those decisions you make become expressions of who you are.”

Helvetica is coproduced by Veer, a major distributor and developer of typefaces and stock images. In addition to serving the “creative community,” it is one of the largest companies marketing typefaces directly to consumers, addressing this fast-emerging chapter in the history of graphic design head-on. Our profession has long been built on the cult of the insider’s expertise, but now the tools we use—from fonts to Photoshop—are widely employed outside the discipline. Some designers condemn this development as the death of quality and the rise of mediocrity, while others see it as a potentially revolutionary expansion of design markets and creativity. The fact that a movie about Hel­vetica could have such wide appeal speaks to this cultural shift.

Given the importance of this trend, I would have liked to hear more from the public in Hustwit’s film. Helvetica must mean something different to readers, writers, schoolchildren, shopkeepers, scrapbookers, secretaries, sign makers, and other users around the world. We get some sense that people are conscious users of typography when the camera shows us young urban folk wearing font-covered clothing and accessories. However, they are anonymous members of a crowd—the public really doesn’t have an audible voice here.

In the end Helvetica is not just about Helvetica. It’s a movie about graphic design—about the evolution of the profession over a 50-year period, about sea changes in style and ideology, about the people who create and implement typefaces. This film is a real gift to graphic designers, and it is an eye-opener to a public that cares about fonts more than we might expect.

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